MANCHESTER, N.H. (AP) — Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie has a message for disgruntled Democrats and independents in New Hampshire fed up with the 2024 presidential front-runners.
“Vote in the Republican primary, baby. We’re the only game in town, and we’re the only way to stop Donald Trump,” he told voters at a diner in Derry last week during a swing through the first-in-the-nation primary state.
As his GOP rivals including Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott go all in on Iowa in the weeks before voting begins, Christie often has New Hampshire all to himself. He’s charting a path here as the race’s most vocal critic of the former president, casting himself as the only Republican willing to directly take him on and arguing that Trump will lose to President Joe Biden next November if he’s the party’s nominee.
While he’s unpopular in national polling, some surveys here conducted in September suggest his support reaches the low double digits — on par with Trump’s other leading opponents, though still far behind Trump.
“Something’s happening,” Christie said in a wide-ranging interview last week in Manchester. “I can’t tell you how many airports I walk through where people say to me, like, ’Save us from him.′ ’You’re the only one telling the truth.’”
After running for president eight years ago and finishing a disappointing sixth in the state, Christie this time is a man on a mission. With minimal staff and a campaign largely powered by media appearances, the former governor and TV pundit is in his element, reveling in his role as attack dog and having what appears to be genuine fun.
“If I told you when I got in in June, that at the end of (September), I would be $700,000 behind Ron DeSantis cash-on-hand, you would’ve told me I was completely nuts. But here I am,” he said gleefully.
For Christie, who played a key role in Trump’s election, it’s as much about winning as redemption. Christie was the first major GOP official to endorse Trump in 2016 and went on to serve as a key adviser, leading Trump’s transition team and helping prepare him for debates. But after 20 years of friendship, Christie broke with Trump the night of the 2020 election when the then-president falsely declared victory while vote-counting was still underway.
Christie sees his role, in part, as warning the party about the dangers of supporting a man who has now been indicted four times and could very well be a convicted felon by the time the general election rolls around. As a former prosecutor, he tries to distill the significance of what can feel like a blur of developments across a dizzying number of cases.
“My job, because no one else will do it in this race — and I don’t think anybody else has the experience that I have to be able to really explain it — is to explain to people how bad this is going to be,” Christie said. “If he’s the nominee, it’s going to be a disaster for the Republican Party because he is going down.”
Christie is making a particular play for independent voters in New Hampshire following Biden’s decision to skip the state’s primary completely.
At his town hall events, Christie is in his element, cracking jokes and telling stories. He begins like a late-night talk show host, delivering a monologue focused on news of the day. Then he launches into a question-and-answer session during which he shares heartfelt stories, including of his aging father’s role as the sole caregiver for a spouse with Alzheimer’s. It’s a familiar role for Christie, who has helmed well over 200 town halls over the course of his career.
But beyond the one liners and punditry, Christie’s town halls are a place of catharsis for former Trump voters like him. He criticizes Trump while still lauding many of his accomplishments and offering a pep talk to voters who feel they have no place left in the party.
“I don’t want to hear that you’re defeated,” he told one dispirited voter at the Backyard Brewery and Kitchen in Manchester last week. “Look, it’s OK to admit Trump turned out to be a boor.”
Christie drew about 80 attendees, some of whom had voted for Trump but had grown tired of his antics. Others said they typically vote for Democrats but were looking for a non-Trump alternative to Biden.
They were people like Robin Stewart, a 67-year-old retiree who lives in Londonderry. She said she’d been a Democrat all her life but switched her registration to independent so she could vote for Christie in next year’s Republican primary.
“I think he’s the most honest and has a better chance of working with people,” she said. “We can’t have this constant division and fighting that we’re having now.”
Stewart doesn’t regret voting for Biden. He “did everything I wanted him to do,” she said.
But she believes his brand of politics is no longer effective ”because the nature of the people have changed. People aren’t willing to work as well together,” she said. “You have to be a lot tougher, I think, now.”
It was a similar story for Debi Rapson, 67, a teacher from Manchester. A registered independent, Rapson voted for Biden the last election but prays for better options this time around. She is particularly alarmed by Trump’s hold on the Republican Party.
“To be really honest, I don’t know what’s wrong with the American public’s brain,” she said, adding, “How people could even begin to still think that he is a viable candidate just blows me away, as an intelligent human being. I thought, as a country, we were smarter than that. It makes me sad.”
At a breakfast roundtable at Mary Ann’s Diner in Derry the next morning, Cynthia Mendez, a nurse, left her own table to sit at Christie’s and commended him for standing up to Trump.
“He’s a narcissist. He wakes up every morning saying, ‘What can the world do for me?’” she said. “This isn’t about Republican or Democrat, this is about a man who did wrong.”
“The fact that you stand here against him, shows that you’re a man, and you stand up for what’s right,” she said.
“You just met Cindy, my running mate,” Christie quipped.
Mendez later said she liked what she heard but hasn’t settled on a candidate.
“I think I’ll give him consideration,” she said.
Still others questioned Christie’s approach.
Lou Abood, a 71-year-old Republican, sitting at another booth, said he hasn’t decided on a candidate but thinks the former governor needs to do more than criticize Trump all the time.
“He needs a different strategy,” he said.
An AP-NORC poll conducted in October found a majority of Republicans (56%) and Democrats (54%) view Christie negatively, with only about 1 in 5 holding a favorable view.
Christie, however, insists he has time and a pathway to the nomination. He believes a strong finish in New Hampshire and a solid performance in South Carolina, where he is also campaigning, will leave him the last man standing against Trump.
“The majority of the people in this party don’t want Trump to be the nominee,” he said. “It’s a matter of who’s going to be able to catch their attention and their excitement to coalesce the opposition. And that’s what the next few months are going to be all about.”
He and aides note he also has the resources to outlast many of his rivals, spending just one-tenth of what DeSantis does a day thanks to a lean operation that consists of just over a dozen people and is powered not by ads but by TV and radio interviews.
Asked whether he was disappointed that so many donors remain on the sidelines — with several groups running anti-Trump ads but still refusing to get behind a candidate — Christie said that was why he ran in the first place.
“I am the cavalry,” he said. “That’s the biggest reason I got in the race. … I was like, no one’s gonna take him on.” ___
Ramer reported from Derry.